At least five foremen from the mine have pleaded guilty to criminal violations, all relating to the lack of required emergency drills at the mine. One of them, David R. Runyon, was already sentenced to a $1,000 fine for not conducting escapeway drills.
During the Jan. 19, 2006, fire, a crew of miners ran into thick, black smoke in their primary escapeway tunnel and had to try to find another way out of the mine. Two workers, Bragg and Hatfield, became separated from the group, got lost, and eventually succumbed to the smoke.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators cited a variety of major safety violations that led to the fire, including "prolonged operation" of a misaligned conveyor belt and allowing large spills of combustible coal dust and grease to build up on the belt.
But criminal charges in the case have focused on violations that could have hampered miners trying to evacuate the mine after the fire had started.
In December 2008, Massey subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. agreed to pay a $2.5 million criminal fine and pleaded guilty to 10 charges, including a misdemeanor -- failing to replace a ventilation wall that could have kept smoke out of the escapeway -- that prosecutors said "resulted in the deaths" of Hatfield and Bragg. The plea deal included one felony, falsifying a Jan. 7 entry in the mine's record book to make it appear that two different escape drills had taken place.
At the time of the plea deal, prosecutors agreed not to pursue charges against the Massey corporate parent or any of its officers or employees, saying the government "does not have evidence" that Massey knew or approved of the record book falsification.
The day the plea deal was announced, a Massey news release quoted Jones saying, "While we will never forget the loss of our two members, resolving these issues with the U.S. Attorney and MSHA will help all of us at Aracoma Coal Co. move forward from this tragic accident.
"Since the fire, all of us at Aracoma have pulled together in a unified effort to improve safety," the statement said. "I am very proud of the members of Aracoma and their focus on safety."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.